Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Outspoken Archbishop of Canterbury

Somehow - in spite of being brought up in a Western Liberal Democracy, I find myself feeling more sympathy with people like unelected monarchs, judges, military men, churchmen and other religious leaders whenever they put down an elected politician.

Sir Cyril Townsend, Arab News

The Most Reverend and Right Honorable Dr. Rowan Williams, who has been the Archbishop of Canterbury since 2002, is a forthright intellectual of great distinction. A previous Archbishop of Wales, he has not been afraid to challenge the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair on the moral and religious questions of the day, and he has the ability to do so diplomatically, and yet with considerable force and effectiveness. His timing tends to be good, and a great swathe of the population would find he talks much good sense.

Just before Christmas he visited Israel with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. From Bethlehem, a shattered and depressed town on the West Bank, where the Christian community has fallen to a quarter of what it once was, he dispatched an article to The Times which was published on Dec. 23 under the title “We mustn’t forget the plight of Arab Christians.”

He wrote: “This Christmas, pray for the little town of Bethlehem, and spare a thought for those who have been put at risk by our short-sightedness and ignorance...”

He believed that: “One warning often made and systematically ignored in the hectic days before the Iraq war was that Western military action — at that time and in that way — would put Christians in the whole Middle East at risk. They would be seen as supporters of the crusading West. At the very least, some were asking, shouldn’t we have a strategy about how to handle this?”

He went on: “Well, we didn’t have one. And the results are now painfully adding to what was already a difficult situation for Christian communities across the region. Iraq’s Christian population is dropping by thousands every couple of months and some of their most effective leaders have been forced to emigrate. In Istanbul, the Orthodox population is a tiny remnant, and their Patriarch is told by some of the Turkish press that it’s time he left.”

He wrote that it was not unknown for Arab Christian families fleeing to the United Kingdom to find that their children are told in school that “they must be Muslims really” and so are put with Muslim children for special activities.

The Archbishop told his readers: “The first Christian believers were Middle Easterners. It’s a sobering thought that we might live to see the last native Christian believers in the region.”

This last remark reminded me of a speech in the House of Lords delivered by his predecessor, Dr. George Carey, in 1992, which caught the attention of the public: “Jerusalem and Bethlehem could become Christian theme parks. They would cater merely for Christian pilgrims and tourists — bereft of the Arab-Christian communities which have been in the land since Our Lord walked it. As one layman put it so movingly to me ‘Will Christians be made strangers in the land of Christ?’”

Dr. Williams has been a clear and consistent critic of the Iraq war, which has embarrassed, and no doubt irritated, Tony Blair who is an active Christian and once considered becoming a Church of England priest. The Foreign Office in London rejected the Archbishop’s remarks, and claimed that it was the extremists in Iraq who should be blamed, rather than British policies, for the suffering of Christians.

In his excellent book “Dispossessed. The Ordeal of the Palestinians 1917-1980” David Gilmour wrote that before 1948 in Palestine: “The largest and most important minority was the Christian. Estimated by the British authorities at 135,000 in 1944, it has consistently formed slightly more than a tenth of the Arabic-speaking population.”

The largest Christian populations in Palestine were found in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa. As one might have expected the Christians once formed a majority in Nazareth and Bethlehem. In the middle of the 19th century Christian foreign missions opened up schools for them such as the famous St George’s in Jerusalem.

As a result of enjoying higher standards of education than the Muslims, the Christians traditionally made up the professional elite of Palestinian society. They made a major contribution to its political life over many decades and have frequently represented the Palestinians abroad. They owned many of the Palestinian newspapers. When the Zionists arrived and began acquiring land, Galilee was one of the main areas to be threatened.

I was not surprised that the Archbishop of Canterbury was accompanied by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor as the Church of England and the Catholic Church see eye to eye on Arab-Israeli conflict. There is close coordination on the Middle East between Lambeth Palace and the Vatican.

During his visit to Bethlehem Dr. Williams said that the Israeli Wall, which is close to that town, was: “deeply wrong in the human heart.”

I like to think all religions can agree with that comment.

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